Sunday, March 15, 2009

Woody Allen

The incomparable auteur ...

Comcast's On-Demand lineup has offered a lot of Woody (no snickering!) lately. And watching some of his works again, it's pretty hard to argue* with the career of everyone's favorite nebbishy comic/philosopher. He's won all sorts of awards for all sorts of films -- from the most serious of dramas to the most ridiculously stupid** of comedies.

*Unless you're one of those types who holds someone's personal life -- like Allen's -- against them when it comes to assessing their work; better stop being a sports fan while you're at it, too.

**Stupid in a very, very good way.

Lately there have been lamentations about how his work is slipping, not nearly up to his standards and blah blah blah*. Here's hoping the teaming of Allen with the angrier, taller, 21st-century version of him breaks that trend. But even if it doesn't ... so? That's what Netflix is for. Or cable, if the On-Demand Library gods feel like being kind.

*Reminds me of a quote from author Joseph Heller, when told he had never written anything as good as Catch-22 after releasing that legendary novel. He retorted: "Who has?"

Not that Woody is inarguably the best ever or anything. But even if he never makes another masterpiece, he's near the top.

Here's why (note -- these aren't all of Allen's good films, but they're among his greatest):

-Annie Hall: The Best Picture winner isn't his best, IMO. Still, it's up there, offering Allen's typical mid-career mix of hilarious lines and interesting life (and, especially, relationship) insights. Extra points for the scenes where Allen's character interacts imaginarily with people in his flashbacks or with strangers out in public, and for the line "Everything that our parents told us is good is actually bad -- like the sun, milk, red meat, and college," and for hilarious early appearances by Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum*.

*"I forgot my mantra."

-Bullets Over Broadway: John Cusack is a blocked playwright and Chazz Palminteri a gangster with an unusual gift -- play writing. Palminteri, Dianne Wiest (who won) and Jennifer Tilly grabbed Oscar nominations; extra points for a great role for one of The Film Official's favorites, Jim Broadbent, as a gluttonous actor smitten with Tilly.

-The Stupid Comedies: Again, "stupid" is a compliment here, a word meant only to separate the likes of Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), Sleeper (1973) and Love and Death (1975) from Allen's more "serious" later works, or at least the ones that don't involve Woody beating a man insensible with a strawberry.

These are the closest to Allen's hilarious books. Personally, it's hard to pick a favorite among the first three I listed, which are slightly superior to Love and Death. Let's go with some favorite scenes, instead:

Remember when Miller beer, um, "came up with" the term "traveshamockery"? Well ...

It's beyond me why the bit at about 1:20 of this clip isn't more well-known.

Oh, the social commentary:

And finally...

-Crimes and Misdemeanors: This 1989 film is dark. Funny. Tragic. Pretty much bleak. Moralistic, but far from annoying about it. Two story strands are at play here, linked only by a mutual acquaintance of both protagonists.

One of those protagonists is Judah (played by the ever-outstanding Martin Landau, known to Entourage-ophiles as Bob Ryan). He's upstanding and upstandingly married, but an affair with a woman (Angelica Huston) is coming back to haunt him. Meanwhile there's Cliff, played by Allen as sort of a less-successful version of himself (he's a low-level documentary filmmaker). Cliff is stuck in a loveless marriage and falls for a TV producer (Mia Farrow). Cliff's story is tragically funny. Judah's story is tragically not.

A lot is made about how Do the Right Thing wasn't nominated for Best Picture in '89, and I can't argue with that. But let's not forget that Crimes and Misdemeanors -- one of the few exceptional films made in the disappointing 1980s -- also didn't make the cut. Not even for offering this profound ending (spoiler alert) or a joke for the One-Liner Hall of Fame*.

*"Last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty."

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